A new landmark study was released by the Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently.
The study, “An Assessment of the Vulnerability of Illinois’ Rarest Plant Species to Climate Change,” by Brenda Molano-Flores, David N. Zaya, Jill Baty and Greg Spyreas is the first statewide assessment of its kind.
The research looks at the vulnerability of all 331 threatened and endangered plant species in Illinois to climate change. Results show 88 percent of the species are vulnerable to decline because of climate change by the end of the century.
The researchers scrutinized each plant using a known index tool and looking at historic range, temperature-moisture exposure and expert interviews who ranked each species by 15 additional factors. Species were then assigned into five different vulnerability groups: extremely vulnerable, highly vulnerable, moderately vulnerable, presume stable and increase likely.
It’s important to note these groups are based on the year 2050 — which isn’t all that far away. A couple species of note locally here are dalea foliosa (leafy prairie clover) — extremely vulnerable, and iliamna remota (Kankakee Mallow) — highly vulnerable. Both species occur in our local reading area, as well as many others on the list.
The discussion part of the paper is the most captivating segment to me. Plants who can move and move quickly can adapt better to climate change as they stand the best chance to be able to find new habitats.
The authors point out that the plants who are surrounded by human barriers (roads, crop fields, sprawl) and those that struggle to disperse their seed effectively over long distances, will have the predicted hardest time. For example, a seed carried by wind or water can go a long way in a year versus one that just falls to the ground below the parent plant.
In the case of the latter, we likely will have to engage in assisted migration by physically harvesting seeds of these plants and driving them to new habitats if they are to survive.
Conservation dollars are limited, and not all the species can be saved as it currently stands. That is hard for any environmentalist to wrestle with, but it is true. This paper argues we will need to prioritize the species that make the most sense for Illinois new habitats.
Species who Illinois comprises the southern end of their range likely will no longer be able to survive here by the end of the century. They will need to move or be moved north. On the opposite end, species who Illinois comprises the northern end of their range will be expanding up into our state and will make more sense for support.
This idea of prioritizing species for climate shifts is not limited to plants. It applies to everything. New ecosystems are forming as we speak. It will be important to act with solid scientific footing with our decisions like this paper illustrates for us but also to act quickly when necessary.